Only 13% of people worldwide feel satisfied in their jobs, according to Gallup’s 2013 study. With a number that low, it begs the question – why? While there could be several reasons, many people know deep down that, instead of following their heart, they chose a career (or salary) based on how it would be perceived by society or their peer group. And with the seemingly continuous pressure from the media, society, friends and even family to be seen as successful – who can blame them?
Whether it’s pressure to have a prestigious job title, own a fancy car, live in a big apartment on the right side of town, wear designer labels, have the perfect body or even to be the perfect parent – it can often feel relentless. For many, it’s the biggest source of stress in their lives. So what pulls us to respond to peer pressure? What impact does succumbing to social or peer pressure have on us? Where is the pressure really coming from? And, most importantly, how do we deal with it?
Why do we respond to social and peer pressure?
Responding to social and peer pressure is driven by one thing: the fear of rejection. Rejection from social groups. From home. Friends. Colleagues. The opposite sex. It’s universal. There is not a single person on this planet who does not fear rejection on some level. So, where does it come from? As with all of our fears, it stems from our hunter-gathering days – when fear was needed for survival. Being ostracised from your group or society back then almost always meant certain death.
The fear of rejection ensured we behaved in a socially acceptable way, increasing our chances of survival. And while humans have evolved to respond to the changing physical environment, our fears have not been so quick to adapt to our modern socio-cultural environment.
The impact of succumbing to peer pressure
For many, succumbing to peer pressure seems like the only option. And while the intention is one of self-protection (protection from rejection), the effects are, more often than not, self-destructive. When we succumb to peer pressure, we end up constantly looking to the media, friends, family, co-workers, even strangers in the street to tell us who we need to be. In order to be accepted. To be loved. Respected. We wait for them to tell us what to wear, what career to have, where to live, who to be friends with, what salary to earn, who to marry, how to raise our kids – all in a bid to simply avoid the pain of being rejected.
We stop listening to what we want. What we need. What makes us tick. What motivates us and inspires us. What we’re good at. What we love. We disconnect from who we really are. And the consequences? The loss of self-esteem, self-worth and sense of identity. Without these, we become stuck. Stuck in a job that has the fancy title and enviable salary but sucks the life out of us. Stuck in financial debt to keep up the façade of living the high-life. Stuck in a business that’s not profitable just because we don’t want to be seen as a failure. Stuck in a cycle of yo-yo dieting or eating disorders, believing we will only be loved if we have the ‘perfect body’. Stuck in a relationship or marriage to avoid other people’s judgement for not being able to make it work. We know something’s not right but we stay stuck. Paralysed by the fear of potential shame, embarrassment and rejection. Not knowing how to move because we’ve lost sight of our value. Our self-worth. We can’t move because we’ve forgotten what WE want. What WE need. We’ve forgotten who we really are.
So how do you deal with peer pressure?
As with all of life’s challenges, the way we deal with peer pressure is by managing our perception of it. Let me ask you this. How real is that threat of rejection? How many people actually come up to you on a day-to-day basis, maybe outside your house or in the mall and say, “If you’re not a Director for a multinational company by the age of 35, then you will be outcast from society forever”? How many of your friends say, “You don’t wear designer labels? Wow. Please never call me again”? Not many right? So where is the pressure really coming from? Out there – or in our minds?
Let’s take Facebook as example. A friend of yours posts a photo of their brand new Ferrari. Now, in reality, it’s just an image. Shapes and colours created by varying light wave frequencies. Completely meaningless visual sensory data. But throw in a misguided interpretation however… “Look at that Ferrari. They must be earning millions. They must have the most amazing life. I’m nowhere near earning millions. I’m a total failure compared to them. If I want the respect of my peers and my family, I’m going to have to start earning millions!” We’ve gone from looking at a simple image to serious pressure to be successful – all in under 15 seconds. Not because there was a written message on the picture saying “You must drive a Ferrari to be happy and respected”. But because of how you interpreted the picture. The message you inferred from the picture – in your mind.
So, next time you feel under pressure to conform to someone else’s expectations, ask yourself – is that threat of rejection real? Are your peers or ‘society’ actually going to be lining up outside your door with your eviction notice if you don’t buy that Tom Ford suit? Or is that just what you’re imagining might happen? Think about this – what would life look like if you didn’t have this fear of rejection? Who would you be then? What different decisions would you make about your life and career? How differently would you behave in social situations, at work, or with friends? How much more confident would you be to simply be yourself?
Believing that people will only respect us because of how much money we’re making, how successful we are or what we’re wearing completely devalues who we are as human beings. The people in your life, the ones worth having in your life, love you for who you are – not for what you have. They love you because you’re smart, kind, generous, honest, respectful, loving, caring, and good fun.
If you do face the real threat of being ostracised from a social group simply because you’re not driving a Ferrari, remember. We’re not living in hunter-gathering days anymore. Rejection doesn’t mean going out into the wilderness to die alone. There are plenty of other human beings all over the world who will appreciate you for who you are. So tell those ‘friends’ to go put that Ferrari somewhere where the sun doesn’t shine and make a quick exit. For every second you spend with them, you are depriving the world of your awesomeness.
Quick tips for dealing with peer pressure
Know your value
Recognise that all human beings are equal. There is no one person on this planet who has a higher value than any other. Sure there might be someone more intelligent than you, but it doesn’t mean they deserve to be on this planet any more than you do. We were all created of equal worth and for our own special purpose. Whether it’s to be a teacher, a carpenter, a humanitarian, a global leader or a parent. All of these missions are of equal importance. So when you make a decision about your life or career, make it from the heart. Because nobody in the world lay on their death-bed wishing they had spent more time conforming to society’s expectations and neglecting their dreams. Ever.
Focus on the people who love you
“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like” – Dave Ramsy. And in doing so, our relationships with our loved ones suffer. Focus on building and maintaining relationships with those you love and who love you for who you are. For they are the ones that really matter. I recognise that for some it’s not about having vast quantities of money and more about simply providing for their families. And if that means sacrificing their own happiness, then that’s what they will do. But take this from someone who knows. As a child, I would have traded my toys and my house for a caravan if it would have meant having a Dad who was happy and home in time to tuck me in at night, and spend quality time with me on the weekends.
Get rid of the potential sources of peer pressure
If you find it hard to not compare yourself to your peers on Linkedin or Facebook, or famous people, then do yourself a favour. Stop looking at them. If you’re struggling with peer pressure, start a new hobby or network in nicer circles to find better friends. You are only causing yourself pain. Wait until you are at a point where you can appreciate other people’s success while being confident in your own self-worth before you open yourself up to potential sources of pressure.
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